NEWARK — After hearing angry commuters sound off about a summer filled with cancellations of trains, officials of New Jersey Transit, the nation’s second busiest railroad, admitted on Wednesday that they had let their customers down.
“Over the past week or so, we have not been able to dependably offer the level of service that we hoped for,” Kevin Corbett, executive director of the statewide transit agency, said at a meeting of New Jersey Transit’s board of directors in Newark.
But along with that admission came a warning that will not make riders happy: The shortages of trains and the engineers to drive them could persist into the fall. “Although I hate to say it, these are issues that won’t be solved overnight,” Mr. Corbett said.
New Jersey’s transportation commissioner, Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, said the directors were considering ways of helping to ease the pain for transit riders but had not considered offering discounts or refunds to customers, many of whom pay more than $ 400 a month.
“We jumped into a firestorm in January,” said Ms. Gutierrez-Scaccetti, an appointee of New Jersey’s governor, Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, who was elected in November and took office at the start of the year. “There’s stuff coming at us from multiple directions, and we’re doing the best we can to address all of it.”
Mr. Murphy, who was returning on Wednesday from a family vacation in Italy, was scheduled to meet with Mr. Corbett in Newark on Wednesday to discuss New Jersey Transit’s troubles. As a candidate, Mr. Murphy blamed the agency’s deteriorating performance on his Republican predecessor, Chris Christie, and he vowed to spend more money to improve the service.
Mr. Corbett said that Mr. Murphy understands the bind the agency is in and that it will take a long time to fix its problems. “Phil gets it,” he said. “He understands there’s no magic wand.”
On Wednesday, the directors approved a $ 2.32 billion operating budget for the 2019 fiscal year that includes an increase in state aid that will allow New Jersey Transit to increase its work force by 114 workers, including some additional engineers, Mr. Corbett said.
Last week, New Jersey Transit announced that it would temporarily shut down its southernmost rail line, which runs between Atlantic City and Philadelphia, in September, and redeploy crews to other lines. Mr. Corbett called that a “drastic action,” but added that the line carries fewer than 2,000 of the transit system’s more than 900,000 daily riders.
Ms. Gutierrez-Scaccetti and Mr. Corbett, who was also appointed by Mr. Murphy, were responding to a crisis of the agency’s own making. It has been losing engineers, to retirement and other railroads with higher pay, much faster than it has replaced them, Mr. Corbett said. That failure has left the railroad without enough of them, particularly in the summer, when some are on vacation and others take unscheduled days off.
The unplanned absences have forced the railroad to abruptly cancel 20 or more trains a day in the last few weeks, frustrating commuters who depend on them to get to and from work. Mary Migacz told the commissioners that, counting this morning, her usual 6:14 a.m. train from Rahway to New York City had been canceled six times in three weeks, adding a half-hour to her trip each time.
“Last summer was a breeze. This summer will be the summer of hell,” Ms. Migacz, who lives in Colonia, N.J., told the commissioners. She was alluding to extensive track repairs at Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan last summer that required trains to be rerouted and prompted Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York to forecast a “summer of hell” for commuters.
That work caused significant disruptions, but it was announced in advance and additional alternatives were provided to help commuters cope. New Jersey Transit also gave discounts to customers whose trains were detoured away from Penn Station.
Some commuters have complained that the spate of cancellations this summer has been more disruptive because of the lack of sufficient warning to allow them to make other plans. After a train is canceled, the next train to come along is often overcrowded or already full, they complain.
Mr. Corbett, who commutes by train from Morristown to Newark, said he felt the customers’ pain. He said one of his morning trains had been canceled this summer. But he said his commute last summer, to his previous job on the Upper East Side, was more torturous.
“It was a zoo,” he said, referring to having his daily train to Penn Station rerouted to Hoboken Terminal, where he had to switch to the PATH train to Manhattan. “It was a dogfight every day. It was ugly.”
He said the primary cause of New Jersey Transit’s current problems is that it had to divert a lot of resources toward meeting a year-end deadline for installing an automatic-braking system throughout its network. Federal regulators have ordered all passenger railroads to adopt the technology, known as positive train control, to prevent crashes.
But Mr. Corbett said he was shocked to find upon his arrival that New Jersey Transit had completed less than 10 percent of the installation of positive train control. Now, he said, more than half of the work has been done and the installation should be completed by Dec. 31. If not, New Jersey Transit could be banned from operating on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, which runs up the spine of the state and through Penn Station.
The installation has been compounded by the unusually high number of unscheduled days off taken by the railroad’s engineers this summer, Mr. Corbett said. He said he and other representatives of the governor had implored the engineers’ union to press their members to show up but that, ultimately, the railroad was at their mercy. He said New Jersey Transit had about 335 engineers and needed about 50 more.
That explanation did not appease Nancy Munoz, a Republican member of the State Assembly from Summit. Ms. Munoz told the directors on Wednesday that “when New Jersey fails to plan, everyone’s plans suffer.” She added, “There have to be better options than canceling trains at the last minute or shutting down lines altogether.”